Roads to Rome: Governor Peter H. Burnett (1807-1895)

I was once a Protestant, and I became a Catholic.

My parents were Baptists; but until the age of thirty-two, I was not a believer in the truth of Christianity. My own observation of men and things, as well as the arguments of others, at length satisfied me that the system was divine; and I at once acted upon my convictions, and joined myself to the Disciples, in 1840. In 1843 I removed with my family to Oregon. After my arrival, and while I was temporarily located at Fort Vancouver, I attended High Mass as a mere spectator, on Christmas, at midnight. I had never witnessed anything like it before, and the profound solemnity of the services— the intense, yet calm fervor of the worshippers—the great and marked differences between the two forms of worship—and the instantaneous reflection, that this was the Church claiming to be the only true Church, did make the deepest impression upon my mind for the moment. I had witnessed very exciting scenes in Protestant worship, and had myself often participated, and was happy. But I had never felt any impulse so powerful— an impulse that thrilled my inmost soul. I gazed into the faces of the worshippers, and they appeared as if they were actually looking at the Lord Jesus, and were hushed into perfect stillness, in His awful presence.

But as I knew nothing of the reasons upon which the Catholic theory assumes to rest, I soon thought I saw errors that I could not sanction. And then there came a painful revulsion in my feelings, as if the flowers of Paradise had almost been within my reach, and had been suddenly withdrawn from sight, and I had found it to be but an illusion and a mistake. But still I can never forget the holy impulses of my soul at that deep moment.

My knowledge of the Catholic theory was exceedingly general and indefinite. I had never read a work in its favor, and had never heard but two Catholic sermons, and they were not upon controversial points. I knew that the Old Church made what are called arrogant and intolerant pretensions; but in all my reading, in all my intercourse with men generally, and among my own kin, I had scarcely met with any thing in her favor. From my limited opportunities, I had only learned that “To lover her was shame, to revile her was glory.”

In the fall of 1844, a Baptist preacher settled in my immediate neighborhood, who had the published Debate between Campbell and Purcell*; and as the Catholic question was often mentioned, and as I knew so little about it, I borrowed and read the book. I had the utmost confidence in the capacity of Mr. Campbell as an able debater. But while the attentive reading of the debate did not convince me of the entire truth of the Catholic theory, I was greatly astonished to find that so much could be said in its support. On many points, and those of great importance, it was clear to my mind, that Mr. Campbell had been overthrown. Still, there were many objections to the Catholic Church, either not noticed by the Bishop, or not satisfactorily answered; and I arose from the reading of that discussion still a Protestant.

But my thoughts continually recurred to the main positions and arguments on both sides, and the more I reflected upon the fundamental positions of the Bishop, the more force and power I found them to possess. My own reflections often afforded me answers to difficulties that, at first, seemed insurmountable, until the question arose in my mind, whether Mr. Campbell had done full justice to his side of the question. Many of his positions seemed so extreme and ill-founded, that I could not sanction them. All the prejudices I had, if any, were in his favor. But I knew it was worse than idle to indulge prejudices when investigating any subject whatever. I was determined to be true to myself; and this could only be in finding the exact truth, and following it, when known.

My mind, therefore, was in a state of restless uncertainty; and I determined to examine the questions between Catholics and Protestants thoroughly, so far as my limited opportunities and poor abilities would permit. In the prosecution of this design, I procured all the works, on both sides, within my reach, and examined them alternately, side by side. This investigation occupied all my spare time for about eighteen months. I observed substantially the course of investigation pointed out in the introduction, and followed the rules of construction therein given. Besides this, I prayed humbly and sincerely, that I might first know the truth, and then have the grace to follow it wherever it might lead me. I examined carefully, prayerfully, and earnestly, until I was satisfied, beyond a doubt, that the Old Church was the true, and the only true Church.

“And I said, if there’s peace in the world,
the heart that was humble might hope for it here.”

And in this I was not mistaken. I found her, as holy Cyprian of old had said, “the house of unity and peace.” I mean to live and die in her communion.

*In 1837, Bishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati engaged in a week-long debate with a Protestant minister, Alexander Campbell, the results of which were later published in book form.

Peter Hardeman Burnett was the first Governor of California (1849-1851). He was also a prominent attorney, judge, and bank president. He was very active in Catholic affairs in California. In 1860 he wrote an 800-page account of his conversion, The Path Which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church, from which the above is taken.

About Pat McNamara
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Great story!

  • Robert Burke

    Peter H. Burnett was my great uncle (four times removed). His sister was Constantia Smith Burnett (my great grandmother three times removed). If there are any Burnetts or Smiths out there I hope you will contact me.


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